Monday, March 14, 2011

I Can't Get No

I wanted to make a post on recent articles in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books on the effects of the digital era on culture, but I ended up writing thirteen pages, which I may turn into several entries after I edit them. In the meantime, I've wanted to make a post on The Savage Detectives that connects with a digital-era-related comment in another recent NYRB article.

In a review of Keith Richards's Life in the March 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, “High on the Stones,” Dan Chiasson beautifully imagines the genesis of the Rolling Stones as a yearning for a half-imagined blues to which they were denied the kind of easy access that characterizes culture in the internet age:

Anyone reading this review can go to YouTube now and experience Muddy Waters, or Chuck Berry, or Buddy Holly, or the first Stones recordings, or anything else they want to see, instantly: ads for Freshen-up gum from the Eighties; a spot George Plimpton did for Intellivision, an early video game. Anything. I am not making an original point, but it cannot be reiterated enough: the experience of making and taking in culture is now, for the first time in human history, a condition of almost paralyzing overabundance. For millennia it was a condition of scarcity; and all the ways we regard things we want but cannot have, in those faraway days, stood between people and the art or music they needed to have: yearning, craving, imagining the absent object so fully that when the real thing appears in your hands, it almost doesn’t match up. Nobody will ever again experience what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger experienced in Dartford, scrounging for blues records. The Rolling Stones do not happen in any other context: they were a band based on craving, impersonation, tribute: white guys from England who worshiped black blues and later, to a lesser extent, country, reggae, disco, and rap.

Chiasson's logic is lovely, but not very sound: he seems to be confusing access to cultural artifacts with access to contemporary culture. The parallel would be not someone going on YouTube and finding performances by Chuck Berry now, but rather a contemporary young person hearing about an amazing current or recent musical movement and not being able to look up the artists on YouTube, or find their albums online (legally or illegally, as an Mp3 or on Amazon) or at the national mall chain store, or see them on MTV. Obviously, before the Stones – before there was rock and roll – there could be no MTV, and corporate culture, making sure that no one in any city of any size should go without any music with any reputation, took care of the rest; and whatever our hearts still desired in terms of cultural access that we didn't know about, the internet took care of. In my own teenage years in the late 80s and early 90s, you may have had to hear about The Smiths or The Cure or The Pixies from a friend (since you wouldn't hear them on the radio), but once you had, it only took a trip to HMV to find their cassettes and even a VHS collection of their videos. 

I also think Chiasson somewhat underestimates (perhaps for the sake of his point) the mystery that attaches to the cultural artifacts shared by users on YouTube and other places on the internet. A few years ago I developed an interest in the 50s comedy duo Nichols and May after reading a book on comedy of the era. Corporate culture seems to have passed Nichols and May right by, and without the internet I would not have been able to find a copy of one of their albums (only one) or seen footage of a few of their sketches on YouTube. At least, it would have taken a lot of scrounging in second-hand record/CD shops, few of which now exist in my neck of the woods. Live footage would have been permanently unavailable to me. (I say "never" and "permanently," but nothing is permanent in the internet era: I go on Amazon now and find Nichols and May CDs on Mp3 for cheap, as well as links to new CDs from various sellers, which may have or may not have been available the last time I looked, and in any case are too expensive for me. Traditional corporations may not have given these items a re-release, but Amazon is ahead of the game, and, as ever, undercutting the price of traditional retailers.)

YouTube is also great for throwing up things you hadn't even bothered yearning for because you believed you would never see them. One of my earliest such discoveries was footage of Marlene Dietrich's screen test for The Blue Angel, which more than fulfilled any expectations I could have had about it, while at the same time clarifying notions about Dietrich being Sternberg's “creation.” (“You can see what Sternberg saw in her,” I commented to a friend when I sent the clip.) Recently I found some clips (promotional clips of some kind, it seems, like early music videos) of Lotte Lenya performing “Surabaya Johnny” and “Alabama Song,” which were as magical as I could ever have dreamt. Previously I had only ever seen Lenya perform, in a much younger incarnation, in Pabst's film version of The Threepenny Opera. Such clips are precious and tantalizing, suggestive of all we still never got to see and never will; and if time unearths more, most fans will only be disbelieving and grateful. Of course, I refer to the use of YouTube now, to unearth precious cultural artifacts that would never otherwise have seen the light of day (or, if they're culled from official releases, never have had such a wide viewing). Presumably things will be different when future generations no longer know what it is to think that you will never see a legendary artist perform because everything is instantly available and archived in the first place. 

The Savage Detectives is centered around the kind of acute, aching cultural yearning that Chiasson describes, although for an artist of the past, not the present. There is little doubt that Cesarea Tinajaro becomes of such great symbolic importance to “the boys” precisely because she is so little known and so little can be known about her: desire is a function of the impossibility of its fulfillment. Her only published poem is a holy relic that requires a pilgrimage. It can't live up to their expectations, which are far too high, but neither can it disappoint, because they won't let it. They treat it with respect, as a mystery, puzzle, or enigma, like the woman herself. But is she an enigma because almost every trace of her has disappeared or because she has allowed or caused almost every trace of herself to disappear? Bolano is no debunker; it is not his purpose to reveal that Cesarea is, after all, mundane. The little we learn about her leaves no doubt that she is inscrutable, and much more is left mysterious. The grotesque slapstick conclusion to their search is, to be sure, inadequate, but this seems like an aesthetic flaw rather than an aesthetic choice, and I'm not sure how else he could have concluded the quest, since any option would be anticlimactic. But is the sort of cultural pilgrimage that Bolano describes, generated by obscurity, only possible in the pre-internet era? Is it possible that there are any cultural figures who have ever meant anything to anyone that the internet knows nothing about?

After I finished the novel (several weeks ago), I naturally did some searching of my own on the internet. The Wikipedia page on The Savage Detectives includes a chart listing the people on whom the characters were based, without citing the source of the information, and the real-life Cesarea Tinajaro is given as Concha Urquiza. When I searched Urquiza's name, I found only one English-language page, a brief blog entry which gives some tantalizing details about Urquiza's life (she died by drowning at the age of 35, joined the communist party and worked for the publicity department at MGM), misprints her name in the first line as “Chocha” (which the mischievously misprint-obsessed Bolano would probably appreciate), links to a page of her poems in Spanish and quotes a long passage in Spanish about her ideas. Just now (don't know if it wasn't there before or if I missed it) I found a Google Books result, an entry on Urquiza from the Dictionary of Mexican Literature by Eladio Cortes, which fills in more details: after her Marxist period she entered a convent but took no vows; she wrote Biblical and erotic poetry; she wrote poetry that was published when she was twelve; she was a probable suicide; her poems were published posthumously in 1946 as Works, Poems and Prose of Concha Urquiza, edited by Gabriel Mendez Plancarte. 

Next I searched her on Google Images, and found two pictures, or rather two pictures from what appears to be a single photo shoot and a second picture, which, due to the women's dissimilarity and the fact that the text was in Spanish, I at first didn't accept as the same woman. However, another image, of the “two women” on a single board together with photos of a modern woman, presumably the artist who made the bust of Urquiza in the foreground, confirmed that the two women were, in fact, the same. The photos from the same shoot show a pretty, sensual young woman with bobbed hair, lipsticked mouth, and an expression that's both sullen and sultry. The other photo is of a prim woman of mannish appearance with severe upswept hair, glasses, and no makeup. It's like Mary Bailey in Bedford Falls versus Mary Bailey the spinster librarian of Pottersville. The discrepancy is so great as to add to the poet's mystery. What could have changed her so drastically, or did the sensual and puritan selves always co-exist and struggle?

Since I don't know Spanish and have no plans to learn it, I will probably never know, unless a publisher inspired by Bolano's posthumous Anglo success decides to bring out an English edition of Urquiza's poems with a substantial biographical essay, or unless Google gets some way better translating software. But I did enjoy the similarity between the fragments Belano and Lima manage to learn about Tinajero, just enough, and just little enough, to tantalize while leaving her mystery intact, and my own attempts to learn something about the "original" Tinajero. It's a comfort to know that although everything may be on the internet, everything is not in English on the internet.

I think it's fair to say that the goal of human life that we've been striving for from the beginning of the species is the closing of the gap between desire and fulfillment. That gap can be temporal, spatial, or economic. Corporations have worked towards the elimination of the temporal/spatial gap by making more products available to more people in more places, and the technological innovators of the internet have made it possible for individuals all over the world to share information, images, music, and videos with each other. Do we need to "worry" that future generations won't know what it is to know about a musician or a movie (or a writer) primarily by rumour, supplemented by a few scraps? That they won't have to long and yearn and search or know what it is for scarcity to make the artist, to make art, seem all the more precious? Aren't Belano and Lima guilty of scorning the art their culture makes available to them precisely because it's in such abundant, oppressive supply; of indulging in the human tendency to reject the near and romanticize the distant?

That tendency will always be with us, alongside the conflicting impulse towards instantaneous fulfillment of desire. Maybe it will become harder to find things that are unknown not only to corporate culture (or literary culture, where they differ) but also to the savvy multitudes on the internet.We ought to keep in mind that even though together they are responsible for our current cultural overabundance, the "availability" provided by corporations and the internet are very different, even opposed. The internet not only subverts corporations by offering pirated copies of their products for free, but also by filling in the gaps left by corporations by file-sharing items overlooked by the corporate money-making machine because there is not enough demand or enough perceived demand: video or audio that is out of print or that has never been released in currently prevalent formats. There remains a sense, then, in which many of the cultural artifacts one finds on the internet are "unknown"; and a sense in which searching the net is a kind of scrounge and quest, albeit a much faster one for our faster age.

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